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Protest won’t change golf – economics will

The issue of Muirfield’s men only membership policy was always going to dog Peter Dawson and the R&A in the run up to this year’s Open.

At his pre-tournament press conference, Dawson said: “The media are, with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, giving out the message this is an issue, and that such clubs should be condemned to extinction, and we shouldn’t be using one to stage the Open Championship...we’ve got... politicians posturing, we’ve got interest groups attacking the R&A, attacking the Open, and attacking Muirfield.”

Reading the papers that week, I was struck by how easy it is to paint Peter Dawson as the classic golf club Little Englander, defending golf from the barbarians at the clubhouse gates, wearing their collarless shirts and untailored shorts.

Easy, but wrong.

There is far more to Peter Dawson than the golf-club stereotype. He is intelligent and articulate on a range of issues.

He made a particularly good point about the amount of money raised for women’s golf by the R&A and the Open, which he puts at around £30 million.

But more than any other, the following quote from the Dawson press conference revealed something very significant. It told me that a smart, articulate man can be 100% wrong sometimes.

“I understand the point, obviously. What I dispute is the fact of the matter that it does harm participation. I think The Open Championship at this absolutely magnificent venue enhances participation hugely. It’s going to be watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, whatever the numbers are. And I think we will find that golfers, men and women, are inspired by what they see. I don’t think people are sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful place, but…’. I really don’t.”

In short, Dawson’s message was that the image of golf is better served by playing the Open Championship at a great golf course rather than making a statement about inclusivity.

As I say, a smart man but 100% wrong.

My take on the R&A, and Muirfield, is that they have confused correlation with cause. They have made the error of believing that the values they represent, the same ones that allow them to refuse entry to half the world’s population, are their greatest commercial asset.

A superficial viewing of the facts might lead you to the same conclusion.

Remember that the R&A’s income comes, in the main, from television and sponsors. The Open has eight official partners, including HSBC, Mastercard and Rolex. Dawson told me that their presence reflected the enthusiasm for golf from the commercial sector.

I think this in only partially true. The presence of these blue chip companies shows an enthusiasm for the Open, rather than golf. It’s an important distinction.

The Open is a global media event, guaranteeing a huge audience watching it live around the world. In a world where we watch TV on demand, saving our favourite programmes for a later time, the value of the live event has sky-rocketed. It’s also why Saturday night entertainment TV has copied the characteristics of sport. You watch X Factor live because you want to see the result. Advertisers know this and pay accordingly.

It’s why Simon Cowell has his own plane.

But look elsewhere in golf and the picture changes. You don’t have to go too far down the European Tour schedules, for example, to see that sponsors aren’t falling over themselves to associate their brand with the game. Where are the tournaments in Britain, for example? They have dwindled over the years because the Tour has failed to find sponsors to pay for them.

I held a round table at the KPMG Golf Business Forum earlier this summer. Chris Burton, head of sponsorship at tech giant SAP, told me the company wanted to sponsor golf but that there was no appropriate platform to showcase their technology. They found a more welcoming home for their money in Formula One and in ocean race sailing. Both attract a similar demographic to golf but offer something else, a sexy tech message. The lesson from SAP and others is that golf’s traditions are getting in the way of embracing the future. Yes, they are an asset, but also a trap.

Look also at the way golf clubs are struggling not only to maintain but to attract new membership up and down the country. And note, too, how innovative many have (out of necessity) become in the attempt to attract people to the game: new membership schemes, relaxing the dress codes, going out of their way to welcome women and children to the game.

Golf is changing. Not in response to the sort of protests surrounding Muirfield’s ideology, or media noise. It’s changing because it has to. It’s the economy, stupid.

August 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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